Food & Drink

Our dining critic explains how to get 4 stars, plus the 8 best-reviewed restaurants of 2019 (so far)

Welcome to the first installment of a new column I’m calling Share Plates. Like its namesake, the column is intended to supplement my main course offering of weekly restaurant reviews. I’m still developing the menu, but I hope to explore a wider variety of topics than is possible in the standard review format.

One month I may drop in on a legendary local landmark restaurant, and the next I may track down a food truck or share a list of my favorite cocktail bars. From time to time, I may even offer a sneak peek at a new restaurant that I’m checking out for a potential starred review.

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Some of Greg Cox’s favorite restaurants from 2018 include left from top Copa, G.58 Cuisine, Swagat, Postal Fish Company and Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets, right from top, Saint James, Cucciolo Osteria, Saltbox Seafood Joint, The Village Diner and Postmaster. 2018 News & Observer File Photos newsobserver.com

In the spirit of share plates, I’d like to invite you to share your suggestions for topics. Just drop me a note with your idea, question, pet peeve, or any other restaurant-related topic at ggcox55@gmail.com

In that same communal spirit, this month I’m kicking things off with answers to questions that I’ve often received in the past 24 years about how I review restaurants. Plus, I’ll share my list of the best-reviewed restaurants of the year so far — restaurants that have received at least 4 stars out of my 5-star scale.

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Q. How do you choose which restaurants to review?

A. In the Triangle, where restaurants open at a clip that continually leaves me with a backlog of candidates, that’s a special challenge. My guiding philosophy always has been that if I’m curious about or excited by a restaurant, others will be, too. I naturally want to check out the hot spots, but I’m just as eager to discover hidden gems. As a result, my dining schedule takes me all over the map, from glitzy new sushi bar to a more obscure Yemeni restaurant.

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Q. How do you decide when to review the restaurant?

A. My rule is that I always allow a restaurant at least 30 days to iron out the wrinkles before sneaking in for a first visit. Realistically, given how many contenders there are, it’s often three months or more before I can get in. In scheduling, I try to take seasonality into account. A hot pot restaurant, for instance, is likely to be more appealing in the fall and winter months.

I also keep the list varied from week to week, which means no matter how many Indian restaurants have opened recently in Cary and Morrisville, you won’t see reviews of three of them in a row.

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Q. How many times do you visit a restaurant before writing a review?

A. At least twice. I generally have one or more dining companions, so that I can sample widely across the menu without drawing attention to myself. Each of us orders a dish, and we share tastes. If those two visits were widely different experiences, I’ll pay the restaurant a third “tiebreaker” visit.

Q. How do you decide what to order?

A. I research the menu before going, and have a list of dishes I plan to order (and yes, I’m bossy enough to expect my dining companions to stick to that list). I try to cover a wide range of prices, cooking styles and protein options, and I’ll also order a particularly interesting nightly special. By the time I’ve paid two visits, I’ve generally ordered at least one item in each menu category. Naturally, the house specialty is a must.

Q. How do you decide how many stars to award, on a scale of 1 to 5 stars?

A. Hands down, that’s the hardest part of my job. Dithering over the difference between a half-star one way or the other has kept me awake at night on more than one occasion. That said, I have developed guidelines over the years that help me arrive at a rating I believe accurately reflects my experience.

Of the three key elements of that experience — food, service and atmosphere — food is for me the most important factor by far. Only if service is especially good or bad will that have a significant impact on the star rating. And that’s a rarity; overwhelmingly, I find it to be merely average. Same goes for atmosphere, which I consider primarily in the context of how well it matches the menu. Beyond that, I’m reluctant to give much weight to dining room decor and vibe, which in my opinion are a matter of personal taste.

That said, a restaurant has to deliver the goods in all three categories in order to earn a rating of 4 stars or higher. So far this year, eight restaurants have merited that rating — an unusually high number, largely because four of them are revisits to restaurant that rated four stars or higher in years past. I’ve rounded them all up here, briefly addressing each of the three key elements.

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Q. How do you stay anonymous?

A. I never book a reservation in my name, and I don’t use a credit card with my name on it. I use an alias for my OpenTable account, and if I’m booking by phone, any restaurant with caller ID won’t see “Greg Cox” as the incoming caller.

These are all standard tricks of the trade, but I take a few other precautions. I decline invitations to judge local cooking competitions, and when I attend food-related public events, it’s as an anonymous member of the public at large. And as social media as become so prevalent — something that wasn’t there when I first started reviewing restaurants — friends know not to tag me on Facebook or other social media.

Q. Do you really think you’re still anonymous after 24 years?

A. I’m aware of a handful of restaurant professionals who know me by sight, but judging by my experience (see above comment about the typical level of service), I’m convinced that my cover has for the most part not been blown. I’d invite you to join me for a meal to show you, but you’d be at the end of a very long line of volunteers.

The Best Restaurants of 2019 ... So Far

ELAINES on Franklin
Elaine’s on Franklin, located at 454 W. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill, serves inventive updates of French classics. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Elaine’s on Franklin

454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. 919-960-2770 or elainesonfranklin.com

Rating: 4 stars

Food: Inventive updates of French classics have maintained Elaine’s status as a prime Franklin Street destination for fine dining since 1999. Pan-seared duck foie gras served on banana-walnut French toast with Vermont maple syrup comes to mind, and grilled filet mignon with garlic-escargot butter and a crispy potato cake.

Service: well-trained, reserved

Atmosphere: white tablecloths against a colorful contemporary backsplash of jewel tone walls and paintings of produce

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Guglhupf 1
The dinner menu at Guglhupf features more small plates and more draft beer. Pascal Monmoine


Guglhupf

2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham.

919-401-2600 or guglhupf.com

Rating: 4 stars

Food: Guglhupf’s menu has evolved over the two decades since it opened, each change bringing new surprises while continuing to live up to a high standard for traditional and contemporary German cuisine. After you’ve feasted on a mussels steamed in Hefeweizen and a superb pork schnitzel, be sure to stop by the adjacent bakery for some of the best European breads and pastries in town.

Service: welcoming, knowledgeable, and attentive

Atmosphere: Weather permitting, one of the most beautiful patios in the area is an irresistible alternative to the open, two-story dining room, which can get quite noisy.

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Chef Michael Lee offers an omikase experience, a multi-course menu that showcases freshness, at M Tempura in downtown Durham



M Tempura

111 Orange St., Durham.

919-748-3874 or m-restaurants.com/m-tempura

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

111 Orange St., Durham.

919-748-3874 or m-restaurants.com/m-tempura

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Food: Who knew tempura could be this good? M Tempura’s omakase style multi-course presentation, each item delivered immediately from the fryer to your plate, elevates a dish often relegated to the appetizer list at Japanese restaurants to a truly memorable experience.

Service: exceptionally well-trained and eager to please

Atmosphere: American urban meets Japanese austere

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The Ceviche Los Cabos is a cylindrical high-rise of shrimp, octopus and tuna served at Mariscos Los Cabos in Durham. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com


Mariscos Los Cabos

4020 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham.

919-748-4290 or los-cabos-bar-and-grill-mexican-restaurant.business.site

Rating: 4 stars

Food: Lobsters are flown in overnight from Maine for the star attraction on the Langosta al Gusto platter, a seafood feast that also includes fresh shrimp, calamari, mussels and other goodies. You don’t have to shoot the works, though, to delight in a seafood bounty will hook you, whether you go for a humble coctel de camaron or an eye-popping Ceviche Los Cabos tower.

Service: friendly and attentive

Atmosphere: over-the-top nautical motif, with live music most nights

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Oakleaf’s striped bass is served with carrot-ginger coulis, French breakfast radish, royal trumpet mushrooms and heirloom carrots. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com


Oakleaf

310 E. Main St., Carrboro

984-234-0054 or oakleafnc.com

Rating: 4 stars

Food: The inventive contemporary fare that made Oakleaf worth a drive to Pittsboro on the outskirts of the Triangle has survived the move to Carrboro with flying colors. Last time I was there, a presentation of pan-seared scamp grouper, sandwiched between a cloud of shaved fennel and a fragrant pool of saffron-shellfish jus was particularly impressive.

Service: solid, if sometimes smug

Atmosphere: cool sophistication of bold abstract paintings and porthole mirrors on midnight blue walls.

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Chef Richard Fong talks about the sushi-driven menu at O-Ku Sushi in downtown Raleigh





O-Ku Sushi

223 S. West St., Raleigh

919-792-3777 or okuraleigh.com

Rating: 4 stars

Food: This casually elegant newcomer feeds downtown Raleigh’s ever-growing hunger for a topnotch Japanese restaurant with impeccably fresh-tasting and expertly prepared sushi, and a concise but equally appealing selection of robata yaki and other specialties from the kitchen. The nigiri sampler, showcasing a “mystery box” of fish flown in from Japan, is a must for sushi aficionados. Really, though, it’s hard to miss no matter what you order here.

Service: well-trained and welcoming

Atmosphere: plank floors, honeyed oak ceilings and polished wood tabletops set a warmly inviting mood that’s at once earthy and dramatic.

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Parizade in Durham deserves to be called Giorgios Bakatsias’ flagship restaurant. The decor - a dramatic pastiche of columns, crystal chandeliers and oversize lamp shades, and a surrealistic fantasy ceiling mural - is classic Bakatsias “dining as theater.” Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com


Parizade

2200 W. Main St., Durham

919-286-9712 or parizadedurham.com

Rating: 4 stars

Food: The flagship restaurant in prolific restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias’ fleet of restaurants, Parizade’s fresh take on Mediterranean cuisine has been winning fans since 1990. Try the bacalao fritters or lamb keftides, or grilled whole branzino — or pretty much anything, for that matter — and you’ll understand the restaurant’s enduring popularity.

Service: welcoming, attentive, and well-trained

Atmosphere: upscale, contemporary and dramatic, with tropical greenery wallpaper, Euro-style love seats, and oversize crimson barrel shade pendant lights suspended over tables draped in white linens

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Zanyu’s khao soi noodles are made up of egg noodles in a northern Thai red curry riddled with chicken, fried shallots and pickled mustard greens. The crowning touch is a tangle of crispy wonton noodles floating on the soup. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Zanyu Asian Noodles

8450 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh

919-803-1340 or zanyunoodles.com

Rating: 4 stars

Food: It’s the rare counter-service restaurant that earns a four-star rating. Zanyu achieves the feat with a short but varied pan-Asian menu of cold and hot noodle dishes and izakaya plates, all expertly prepared. Kao soi noodles, pork belly ramen, steamed buns, ebi sunomono, and sesame-spangled green beans are some of my favorites. You won’t have any trouble building an equally lengthy list of your own.

Service: An eager-to-please wait staff go the extra mile, at times even making this counter service eatery, feel like you’re getting full table service

Atmosphere: A sheltered patio with a view of the Lafayette “village lawn” expands the seating possibilities of Zanyu’s narrow dining room.

Chef Michael Bongiorno discusses one of his favorite dishes on the menu, khao soi noodles, at his Raleigh restaurant Zanyu Asian Noodles.

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